The lack of autonomy in schools today is saddening. The standardization of our assessments has led to a narrowing of our curriculum and instruction. This is happening in schools where even the leaders are giving permission to teachers to explore their passions and to innovate in their instructional approaches.
This is why we are seeing so many initiatives popping up in education today that allow for more choice. The following two instructional approaches – Makerspaces and Genius Hour – are possible pathways a teacher or school leader might take in order to instill a climate of choice in the school house. These are initiatives I have been a part of in our school from the ground up. The effects have been nothing short of inspiring.
A makerspace is a DIY, passion-driven learning environment where the focus on creation versus consumption. They can be located in an empty classroom, the library media center, or wherever creativity and innovation can be encouraged. Technology should definitely be included within a makerspace, but it is not required at a level you might assume. I have learned through different trainings and resources that the focus and the culture of a school largely drives how the makerspace is utilized in a building.
Our makerspace inhabits an empty classroom, due to declining enrollment in our blue-collar city. This initiative was spurred by the results from a BrightBytes survey all staff and students took previously. While we had quality access to modern resources, we weren’t always using them to promote critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication. These are the four tenets for a 21st century learning environment.
Students were involved from the get go in selecting what was needed for this space. While I had initially budgeted for a lot of technology through a local grant application, the students surprised me by electing for better furniture in which to explore their passions and wonderings. We purchased an inclinable table, ergonomic chairs, and mobile desks. 4th graders were even involved in putting this equipment together when it arrived.
Before the room was even ready, teachers and students started utilizing our makerspace. Our focus as a school is on the reading-writing connection. This has been evident in the projects that have transpired. One teacher partnered with a local organization to work with students and their families to build bookshelves for the texts they take home from school and book fairs. The 4th graders who helped in the planning of the space are writing and developing a multimedia advertisement to collect t-shirts to make dog toys for our local humane society.
What I have discovered with this experience is it is sometimes not enough for leaders to say they will support something innovative. At times we have to help build what we want and envision.
Denise Krebs and Gallit Zvi, authors of The Genius Hour Guidebook: Fostering Passion, Wonder, and Inquiry in the Classroom (MiddleWeb/Routledge, 2015), describe this concept as “a time when students can develop their own inquiry-based projects around their passions and take ownership of their work”.
In a 2nd grade classroom, a teacher is exploring the effect of choice on student engagement. She found a slice of time at the end of each day for genius hour to be facilitated (she integrated her content studies and writing instruction). She started this experience by teaching students how to ask questions that could not be answered by searching on Google. Once students discovered two or three questions to explore, the teacher explained the inquiry process that other professionals use in their work. Using these steps, the students got started.
One small group wanted to find out what was the best degree of slope for designing a zip line for a fixed distance. They took string, toys, and other materials to create prototypes for their trials. The only technology needed was a computer to upload pictures of their progress and process into their digital portfolios via FreshGrade (www.freshgrade.com).
The preliminary results from this teacher’s classroom research have been promising. One student, who receives special education services for behaviors, has decreased his need to take a break from the classroom by 71% from fall to spring. When the teacher asked him why he thought this was happening, he replied, “I really want that time to tinker.”
The Choices We Make
A static approach to improving the conditions in dynamic environments such as classrooms has not brought about the change that some people had hoped for. Squeezing out autonomy in the name of accountability has a track record for failure. Why not trust the professionals who work directly with our students to have some latitude in how the school experience should be designed, with learners in mind? The observations we have made in our school leads us to believe that a little bit of choice in our learning can go a long way.